NR | 1 hour 15 minutes | Docudrama | 2023
The proliferation of Chinese police stations operating clandestinely in foreign nations, without the sanction or cooperation of local authorities, is a very real and highly illegal phenomenon. These extralegal outposts frequently monitor and harass members of the Chinese diaspora (Chinese living outside of China), but they have no authority to freeze accounts or make arrests on foreign soil.
However, getting an accusatory call from the Shanghai police was understandably upsetting for a Taiwanese immigrant like Jerry Hsu. When threatened with arrest and financial forfeiture, he agreed to act as their informant.
Hsu re-enacts his stressful real-life “undercover” exploits in Law Chen’s hybrid-docu-drama “Starring Jerry as Himself,” which screens online as part of the 2023 Slamdance International Film Festival.
It had been years since Hsu had visited China (either of them), so he is shocked to get a call from Officer Zhang, informing him he had been identified as a leading suspect in an international money laundering investigation.
Their case is zeroing in on the suburban branch bank where Hsu has his accounts. Unless he goes undercover, snooping around the bank, the Shanghai police will freeze his accounts and arrest him.
If the Shanghai police “arrest” anyone in this country, it is a kidnapping. Hsu should have been immediately skeptical and asserted his rights, but, unfortunately, the naïve retiree did not have a masters in criminal justice from Twitter University.
As an immigrant of his generation, Hsu is instinctively deferential to authority, which makes him so vulnerable to the plot that is afoot. The Chinese government’s documented aggressive behavior overseas also lent credibility to their intimidating overtures.
The twist of Law’s film has been excluded from the media copy, but most viewers will guess the true nature of the game being played. In fact, Hsu wanted to make the film precisely to warn vulnerable seniors such as himself, by telling his story. Credited as Law’s co-writer, Hsu still had all the pics and texts from his dealings with Zhang to draw from.
Hsu was largely on his own, since his divorce from his wife, and rarely seeing his three grown sons, which was another contributing factor. However, Law’s film was a family affair, with the entire family also playing themselves and his eldest son Jon serving as a producer. They all look completely natural and self-conscious, persuasively maintaining the verité illusion.
The ”real actors” in “Starring Jerry as Himself,” Fang Du and Haosong Yang, are also chillingly convincing as Inspector Ou and Officer Zhang, even though their frequently surrealistic scenes undercut the hybrid’s sense of realism. Most importantly, despite his reserved personality, Jerry Hsu is a compelling and likable protagonist, who holds the audience’s interest and sympathies throughout the film.
The interaction of the real, the re-enacted, and the hyper-unreal might be off-putting for less adventurous audiences, but Law is not trying to fool anyone. It is easy to discern how everything presented on-screen should be interpreted.
One thing should be crystal clear from watching “Starring Jerry as Himself.” If viewers are ever contacted by Mainland Chinese police, they should be extremely wary. Do not trust anything they say. That should go without saying, but bad people can be very believable. That is as true for agents of Xi’s regime as it is for common criminals.
The fear of spoilers is probably overblown in the case of “Starring Jerry as Himself,” but Law and the Hsu family definitely take viewers on a dramatic ride. Clearly, Jerry Hsu’s contact with the PRC turned his life upside down, so his desire to share this cautionary tale to help others is quite laudable.
Recommended for fans of true crime and unconventional documentary filmmaking, “Starring Jerry as Himself” screens online through Jan. 29 as part of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, and it deserves to be picked up for traditional theatrical distribution, because it really is one of the best of the fest.
‘Starring Jerry as Himself’
Director: Law Chen
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 25, 2023
Rated: 4 stars out of 5